There’s Cheap, and then There’s Cheap and Ugly

A market research firm based in New York sent an email soliciting participants for a focus group on consumer electronics. To adorn their communique, the author of the message included an illustration of a notebook computer, a tablet, and a smartphone, suggesting that this workshop would be on personal computing devices.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

The image, however, looks really cheap for a few reasons. In fact, the image offended me to the point that I did not even sign up for the focus group and have taken to write this post.

First, the devices in the photo are pretty obvious knockoffs of Apple devices. The notebook looks a lot like a MacBook Pro, complete with the silver aluminum unibody case, the off-color trackpad, the black keycaps, and the black bezel surrounding the display. The mobile devices look different enough from an iPad and iPhone, mostly because they each bear three marked buttons below the display, whereas Apple mobile devices stubbornly have only one slightly recessed button.

iPad has only one button.

iPad has only one button.

Second, the desktop backgrounds of each of these devices bear a pretty striking resemblance to an old version of iOS. The scattered water droplets look a lot like what Apple used to market iOS 5, back in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011. Way to keep it current, guys!

The devices depicted in the illustration reminded me of Engadget’s Keeping it Real Fake series on clones and imposters of more popular and expensive products.

Ceci n’est pas iPhone

Third, the watermark identifying the stock photo agency on the illustration made the email communique look even more cheap and ugly than the knockoff devices depicted therein. The image is available for purchase from Dreamstime. Had this market-research firm paid the photo agency for the image, which seems like a justifiable business expense, the image would not have had the watermark, and it would have been of higher resolution. In short, it would have looked less ugly.

Despite being overly educated in film, I would hardly call myself an aesthete, but this solicitation offended me to the point where I felt compelled to shame the author. I regularly encounter this with students who don’t give much thought to the look of their papers. Why do they all have to be written in Times New Roman or Calibri (you know, the Times New Roman of Google Docs)? Why not take a few minutes and make your paper look nice and distinct from the others? The same goes for stock art. It’s bad enough when generic looking stock images infiltrate emails, newsletters, or webpages because rather than enhancing the work, the stock images taint the message with corporate blandness. And in the case of this particular email, it also looks sloppy because the author apparently just did a quick Google Image search, ripped the image off the web, and stuck it in the email composer.1

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the linked survey is done in a garish orange and blue color combination, accented with lime-green buttons. This medley of colors shouldn’t be a legal combination in HTML and CSS: browsers should instead render the colors in black and white.

Screenshot 2015-03-18 20.33.15

I wonder if this is what the kids today mean by Internet Ugly. Or is just ugly?


  1. I have no way to prove this, of course, but it appears that this was likely the artist’s workflow. 

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